Each year, there’s a new singer-songwriter I’m introduced to that ends up becoming the soundtrack for many a long drive and/or sleepless night. Last year, it was the Tallest Man on Earth, whose album The Wild Hunt was on repeat in my car stereo for over two straight months; in 2009, it was Bon Iver’s Blood Bank EP (along with the leftovers of For Emma, Forever Ago).
Just this week, Robert Ellis earned this spot for 2011. In only four months of reviewing for MVRemix, I can state without a doubt that Photographs is not only the best album of the twenty I’ve critiqued so far; it’s the second-most honest piece of music that I’ve heard this entire year. (Bon Iver once again takes top prize.) Though Ellis’ Texan accent and southern guitar twang undeniably labels him a country singer, the 22-year-old should also share comparisons to deceased indie icons Elliott Smith and Nick Drake. The Houston native doesn’t just wear his heart on his sleeve; he cuts it open and bleeds out for all to witness. “That dock was all washed away/ Just a cruel reminder of what it was yesterday,” he laments on the second track, “Bamboo,” and gives us the entire theme of his debut: nostalgia’s a bitch.
By opening with the beautiful, boyhood narrative, “Friends Like Those,” Ellis instantly proves his worth in the singer-songwriter genre. He writes from a storytelling vein that even Paul Simon would admire, using truthful imagery at times in place of rhyme schemes to place us directly within the picture he’s painted. On the ragtime-enfused “Two Cans of Paint” and the Jackson Browne-inspired “I’ll Never Give Up On You,” Ellis teases the suggestion that perhaps Photographs is about looking back on the past with a smile on your face. But as the album closes, the songwriter’s fateful sadness ensues as Ellis ends the record with the dismal “No Fun” and “Photographs,” and we’re reminded of Ellis’ initial theme. “Take down those photographs,” he sings on the final track. “I need to know what’s passed is past.”
With a fall tour lined up as an opener for recent blowup stars Justin Townes Earle and Jonny Corndawg, it seems like only a matter of time before Ellis headlines a tour of his own. But hopefully it doesn’t make Ellis too excited; he’s proven loneliness and desperation are terrific muses.